Thursday is karaoke and line dancing night at the Arch Social Club at Baltimore’s infamous intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues – an area now well known as ground zero for the riots following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Sitting in his chair “Brother Larry,” Arch Social Club’s unofficial bouncer, reaches past his beer to open the front door for a member. At 92, Larry Washington is the Arch’s eldest living member. A veteran of the Normandy invasion, he has been paying his club dues for more than seventy years and remembers the club’s humble beginnings in its original Arch Street location, just two doors from his childhood home.
Founded in 1905, this is the oldest existing African-American social club in the state of Maryland and one of the oldest in the United States. In the strictly segregated Baltimore of the turn of the century, the founders of Arch challenged Jim Crow and sought “The social, moral, and intellectual uplift of its members…” This mission, combined with an inclusive membership policy, made Arch unique. The norm at African-American social organizations of the time was to choose members based on skin tone, social class, religious identity or political affiliation, but Arch was always more diverse. There were doctors, lawyers and other professionals, members of a nascent African-American middle class. But there were also porters, longshoremen and labor organizers important to Baltimore’s union movement. Some of the club’s members followed the teachings of Booker T. Washington, while others were militants of Marcus Garvey’s nationalist U.N.I.A., and still others supported the revolutionary politics of W.E.B. DuBois. This being said, membership was and still is limited to men only.
Brother Larry (all the members call each other “brother”) smiles a toothless grin. He says the club was a place where black men could drink, smoke, play board games and talk without interruption by disapproving wives. The entry area where he spends his evenings is a de facto museum. There are framed black and white photos of the founding members and the original clubhouse on Arch Street, as well as the club’s articles of incorporation and a sign clarifying the dress code in the “Red Room,” a banquet hall with a u-shaped bar, dance floor and mirrored walls. Fifty or so patrons, ranging in age from 35 to seventy, laugh and talk at tables around the dance floor as the night alternates between karaoke and line dancing. Everyone knows each other, and some are second-generation patrons. “It’s all about history,” Brother Darren says as he deals a deck of cards.
Brother Kaleb Tshambe, the club historian, argues that Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue is as important to African-American history as Harlem. In the 1920s and ’30s some of the country’s first right-to-work boycotts broke segregation’s hold on the area. By the ’50s “the Avenue” was filled with limos and neon signs. It had become the heart of Baltimore’s African-American community. There were multiple black-owned movie theaters, jazz clubs and churches. Both Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway grew up in Baltimore and would later perform on “the Avenue” along with other nationally known acts. Brother Tshambe boasts that, with more than 200 active members, it was Arch’s heyday.
Then on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered and riots erupted across the country. Brother Kaleb solemnly admits that Pennsylvania Avenue – and, more importantly, Baltimore at large – is still recovering from the ’68 riots. Walking around West Baltimore, it is clear the neighborhood has been left behind by the urban renewal initiatives that rebuilt the Inner Harbor and Canton districts. The current renewal program is scheduled to demolish more than 4,000 buildings, hundreds of which are in West Baltimore.
Brother Sozufi Nnamdi has been Arch Social Club’s president for a decade. Sitting in the club’s wood-paneled managerial office, where a combination of desks and chairs makes it difficult to close the door, Brother Sozufi says he’s watched Arch’s musical culture transition from live entertainment to disco and deejays and now back to live shows. Arch adapts to the times but the club is still struggling with what Sozufi calls an “old way of thinking” in Baltimore.
Brother Sozufi notes that the city recently announced plans to invest more than four million dollars in a defunct historical club on Pennsylvania Avenue. “We are alive and kicking now,” he says, “why not invest it and redo this building here and then we would be the anchor to help to promote and push what needs to be done up and down the avenue?”
Since the riots last spring the club has suffered economically. It is currently operating in the red, with active members taking on the organization’s financial responsibilities. However, recent events like the Valentine’s celebration and the 104-year anniversary (of the club’s incorporation) have been successes.
After enduring a century that spanned segregation, prohibition, the booming ’50s and the long downward spiral since, Brother Sozufi says there is “determination that we are going to culturally express ourselves, and we are determined we are going to do it right here. This is our corridor, Pennsylvania Avenue… We think it can be a vibrant, fluent community once we can get the kind of support to make it feel and look safe.”
But Brother Sozufi repeats a common complaint in poor communities of color across the country. The national media only comes “when something negative is going on… Our intention is that every time they come down here to cover the Freddie Gray case, we want to direct them and show them that hey, there is a vibrant life here and there is some positive things going on.”